Joe Biden can build back better on more transparency in government

Joe Biden can build back better on more transparency in government
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This is Sunshine Week, a celebration for open government, which is the perfect chance to reflect on whether President Biden has taken steps to “build back better” on the issues of federal transparency.

When it comes to the issues of press access and public engagement, the administration gives a real improvement over the previous one. But that is a low bar since President Trump set a defiant abysmal standard. Anything better than the hostile relationship with the media is progress. As a result, the administration has been praised for taking basic steps like reinstating daily media briefings, a once standard practice that was canceled during the last four years. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, with the same spirit, has been lauded for not operating like Sean Spicer.

Biden has also moved further than his predecessors, including his former boss, in his executive order to mandate ethics rules for his administration. Among other strong ethics provisions, his executive order bans lobbyists from working in agencies they have lobbied, restricts “golden parachute” bonuses for executives who leave firms to work for the government, and prohibits senior executive branch officials with lobbying the White House on behalf of clients over two years after they leave office.

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But the administration has also taken steps which decrease transparency. They closed the White House comment line, which is an easily accessible forum which does not need internet connection. They do not publish the daily schedules online. They also took down the “We the People” petition system on inauguration day, which deprives the public of a critical way to directly make external views known to the White House.

The administration has also declined to publish the visitor logs for virtual meetings just as it does for all in person meetings. It compares the video conferences to phone calls, saying it is not tradition to make phone calls available to the public. However, such virtual meetings are substitutes for in person meetings, not an alternative to phone calls, and they should be treated as such. The public has a right to know who might have influence over the executive branch. Restoring such lines of communication would be a clear symbol for commitment to open government. These measures could head toward restoring trust in federal institutions.

But Biden could enact government accountability measures to make it harder for any future administration to unravel them. The White House should appoint an ethics czar to not only ensure a commitment to the highest possible ethics code but to address the known weaknesses in federal ethics law. It could also create safeguards to shield inspectors general from political pressure. It should also strengthen the Office of Government Ethics, the independent agency dedicated to preventing conflicts of interest in the executive branch, and enact more detailed financial disclosures when senior officials are appointed.

Moments of crisis often provide cover for politicians to dodge scrutiny. However, the coronavirus presents the opportunity for Biden to do the opposite. His administration can create a new standard in government transparency, doing more than his predecessors with the White House. Like the president himself says, that would be a big deal.

Danielle Caputo serves as the legislative affairs counsel with Issue One.